At least half a dozen women I know either are the sole support of their families or the primary breadwinner. Their husbands and partners either don’t work outside the home, work minimally or work at a far lower rate of pay. One is a house-husband with child care responsibilities. Several have varying degrees of chronic illnesses, combined with burn-out. Some have made bad business and life decisions that impact their financial stability. In each case, it’s the woman who has stepped in to make things whole.
What are we to make of this?
I wish I could say that this reflects a more equal society and the women in these cases are embracing their power, but it’s not true. These women are struggling with the role of primary wage-earner. That’s because our generation is really a bridge generation. We’re old enough to have incorporated some of the role values of our parents’ generation–after all, that’s what we saw. But we lived women’s liberation and are young enough to have seen a different model, one in which the woman is the achiever.
And yet, many of us are uncomfortable with the role of primary breadwinner.
A while back I was with an underemployed man whose earnings were significantly less than mine–maybe 10 percent. A big gap. In addition, his motivation to earn more just wasn’t there. When he was without a job, he was perfectly comfortable on unemployment and ran it out until it expired before finding another job. It was his choice–he wouldn’t even look for a job until unemployment ran out It was also his choice to remain underemployed. Very different from my attitudes and values.
Partnering up with him long term was on the table and I had to go through significantly rationalizations about gender roles etc. to even consider that possibility. My justification was this: “If the roles were reversed, no one would think twice. It’s a modern age and I’m a progressive woman.”
Most of the people around me, men and women around my age, disapproved. And to tell the truth, as much as I rationalized, the earnings gap would have been a wedge in the relationship, which ended for other reasons.
The women I know who make more than their men struggle with this. I’m wondering what you think.